THE Trial of the Century

By Alexander, S. L. | Judicature, March/April 2009 | Go to article overview

THE Trial of the Century


Alexander, S. L., Judicature


THE Trial of the Century Anatomy of a Trial: Public Loss, Lessons Learned from The People v O.J. Simpson, by Jerrianne Hayslett. University of Missouri Press. 272 pages. 2008. $29.95.

More than 13 years have passed since THE Trial of the Century, the criminal case of athlete, sportscaster, and actor O.J. Simpson, acquitted on charges of the 1994 murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. Scores of books have been written by trial participants: defense and prosecution lawyers, dismissed and remaining jurors, witnesses such as Kato Kaelin, die Houseguest from Hell - in fact, almost everyone involved, save Kato the Akita.

Scholars have studied such aspects of the case as race (the defendant is African-American, the victims white); humorists have written joke books and parodies. Simpson himself has written several books, most recently If I Did It, subject of a 2007 court case that temporarily halted publication and ended with the copyright and all profits turned over to Goldman's family, toward the 1996 wrongful-death judgment holding that Simpson owed the victims' families millions. So why did Jerrianne Hayslett write Anatomy of a Trial, and why should anyone read it?

Discussion of the lasting effects of the trial on use of gag orders, sealed records, closed proceedings, and courtroom cameras remains relevant. And Simpson is still a public figure: a recent Las Vegas robbery and conspiracy conviction, currently on appeal, has finally sent him to prison to serve what could be at minimum a nine-year sentence. Moreover, (now retired) Hayslett is uniquely qualified to write a broad overview with hindsight: as the longtime L.A. Court PIO and media liaison, she handled not only Simpson but cases involving the Menendez brothers, the Rodney King beating, and pop singer Michael Jackson.

And while almost everyone involved has discussed the case, the one person who has refused thousands of requests to do so, the focus of the world's attention during the trial (an estimated 150 million watched the verdict), is Judge Lance Ito, and Hayslett is likely the closest we'll ever come to the ultimate insider viewpoint.

The story of how Lance Ito, a highly regarded jurist before Simpson, became the worldwide poster boy for how not to conduct a criminal trial (due to the behavior of the lawyers, the press, the witnesses, and the jurors along with the admitted mistakes of the court itself) serves as an instructive how-not-to for today's media commentators, prosecutors, and defense lawyers, as well as the many criminal court judges whose fear of "Ito-ization" still haunts them today.

(Disclaimer: my work has included study of the case, including a survey of its early effects on courtroom camera usage for Judicature (January-February 1996) and a brief biographical sketch of Ito for a 2004 reference book. I have participated in several of the same fair-trial/free-press conferences as Hayslett.)

According to Hayslett, the farreaching and long-lasting impact of the trial is the result of four major factors, including Ito's character and approach; behind-the-scenes activities; interaction of the trial participants, the media and the judge; and the reactions of other judges to Ito's conduct of the trial.

To some extent, the book may rightfully be seen as an apologia. Since it is promoted as the "first account of the trial written with Judge Ito's cooperation," it is only natural that Hayslett would focus on the ways in which Ito was not the sole cause of the media circus, although she admits that his - and her own "unwitting culpability... contribu ted to the enduring negative effect."

Hayslett describes the judge's Japanese-American cultural background, one of graciousness and rule-following, set in his coming of age in Berkeley in the freewheeling 60s and 70s, along with his naivete about how journalists work. This explains, for instance, why early on during the trial, the judge granted a (highly criticized) interview with KCBS-TV on a subject familiar to him: a commemoration of the World War II internment camps where Ito's parents had met. …

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